Staying at Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawaii

As a Disneyphile it’s hard for me to assess how much awareness there is about Disney’s Aulani Resort [disney.go.com] in Hawaii. I’d known this place was coming for years; however, 4 times out of 5 when I’m talking to people about our trip they are surprised about the fact that there is a Disney hotel in Hawaii. In case you fall into the 80% of people I know who had no idea, here is a review, some tips and tricks, and a few things that you might want to know about Aulani.

Tower at Disney's Aulani Resort in Hawaii

There’s a Disney Resort in Hawaii?!

Yes there is. The resort is made up of a moderately large hotel property with loads of family friendly activities, nice pools, an amazing kids program, and top notch service that you would expect from the big D.

Before you ask, there is no theme park there. Disney went very low key and the resort is Hawaii themed not Disney themed. From time to time you’ll see some of the famous characters available for photos and autographs and sometimes even splashing around in the kids pool. The story they give you is that the characters are there on vacation. Other than those characters and the Mickey lamp in your room there are very few physical clues linking this property with the theme parks.

Mickey Mouse Lamp at the Aulani Resort in Hawaii

Where in Hawaii is Aulani?

Aulani is located on the south-west corner of Oahu in the Ko Olina resort area [koolina.com]. About a 40 minute drive out of Waikiki, to get to Ko Olina just head west towards Pearl Harbor on the H1. Instead of turning north on the H2 towards the North Shore just keep going west and you’ll see the turn off just after going through Kapolei (be careful, it’s easy to miss the exit!).

Ko Olina is a relatively new master planned resort that includes a number of hotels, condos and townhouses, as well as a major golf course and three man made lagoons protected from the sea.

Water Feature at Disney's Aulani Resort in Hawaii

Why go to a Disney resort in Hawaii?

If you are a Disney fan like me the answer is because it is there. For normal human beings with the means to take a vacation to Hawaii I suggest that it’s the strong focus Disney has on family activities and education. Every day you are given a schedule of events including opportunities to learn about Hawaiian culture. My wife enjoyed the well run hula dancing class you might find at any good Hawaiian resort but was elated when Minnie Mouse joined in at the end.

Even if your inner child is mortally wounded or surpressed and you don’t care for Disney you may still appreciate the amazing pools, waterslides, lazy river, or the high end spa. Down at the lagoon they offer hotel guests free beach chairs, umbrellas, and sand toys.

Water Playground at Disney's Aulani Resort in Hawaii

Personally, I was really excited about Auntie’s Beach House [disney.go.com], a 5,200 square foot kids club that is included in the price of your room. Inside they have games, activities, storytelling, and they will feed your kids for $8 a meal! When we were there they were open from 8am to 9pm (and 10pm on the weekend). I don’t suggest that you leave your kids there all day long, but I do suggest that you drop them off and go for a few nice meals!

They also have a Menehune Adventure Trail game where they give you handheld wireless devices that send kids on a treasure hunt around the property. As they arrive at different locations the wireless device sets off interactive displays. Note that you should stick to the indoor “trail” when it’s really hot out. The kids got pretty cranky trying to follow the clues for the outdoor trails in the mid-day sun.

On top of all of the family activities there is always the fact that Disney just knows how to operate a top notch resort. From the friendly and efficient check-in and check-out process to the lounge that includes showers and lockers for guests to use if they have an early or late flight on arrival or departure days, the’ve anticipated most of your needs and provided for them.

Disney staff at the theme parks and resorts are called Castmembers because they are supposed to put on a show for the guests to immerse them in the experience. The Castmembers at Aulani do a great job and always seemed to be there with a smile to offer assistance.

Lobby at Disney's Aulani Resort in Hawaii

That sounds great! How’s the food?

Ah yes. The food. Before you go and assume that I’m a major Disney shareholder or something, let me tell you that just like in the theme parks the food tends to be the soft spot in Disney’s experience delivery. As a foodie, I have to say that the food options at Aulani are underwhelming and over priced. Most of the counter service spots offer very generic food, although they’ve tried to add some local twists such as offering Maui chips with the burger. The food isn’t bad, it’s just not particulary exciting. Or cheap. The shave ice is decent and can be worth the price on hot days.

Mamas Snack Stop at Aulani

 Note that I didn’t try eating at the high end restaurants on property. The selection of more interesting and local food is better but you will pay a premium for it.

I find it hard to blame Disney for this because I think the food is what the people want. My kids eat a pretty varied diet, but I know plenty of people (including adults) who would starve to death without chicken fingers, burgers, and fries. I’ve also noticed that the best place to get food at a Disney park is where they serve anything remotely interesting because those places have the shortest lines. Since good food is not popular they try to tame it down to the lowest common denominator or end up just shutting down. This makes me cry on the inside.

On a positive note, there is some great food to be had in nearby Kapolei and Waipahu. Make sure you have a car so that you can go out and get some good eats [averagetraveller.com].

Anything else?

Other than the food the only complaint is that by Oahu standards Ko Olina is pretty tame. The man made lagoons are pleasant but small and un-surfable by design. If you decide to rent a stand up paddle board or a kayak the lagoon gets pretty boring pretty fast. Ko Olina is where you go to get away from the hustle. There is plenty to do on the property at Aulani, and it’s always easy to get a nice lounge chair with an umbrella at the beach, but as I said before – make sure you have a car!

Is it worth staying at Aulani?

Despite the food and the kiddie lagoon, it is absolutely worth it whether or not you are a Disney fan. It’s not budget travel by any strech of the imagination, but for what you pay you do get some pretty good value. The next time I’m in Oahu there’s a very good chance that I’ll be staying at Aulani for part but not all of my stay.

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18 thoughts on “Staying at Disney’s Aulani Resort in Hawaii

  1. “Because it is there.” That would be my reason, too. Disney has been sending me brochures about Aulani since it was still in the construction stage. Their reputation alone for excellent service and entertaining kid options would be enough to make me want to stay there. I’m so glad to hear from you that it’s as great as I imagined.

  2. I’ve been reading about this resort and it looks lovely. I guess I was a little unclear on my understanding. I had assumed since it was a Disney resort the character sightings would be plentiful- not that I would stay there just for that. Teenagers aren’t nearly as excited to run into dozens of characters as they were when they were younger. 😉 I think your tip about the food is great- we’d definitely want to venture away from the resort to experience more of the local flair. Great pictures!

    • The characters are around but just not in your face. I’d guess that I saw a character somewhere every 2nd or 3rd time that I walked across the pool area. They also list the appearance times in the daily schedule so if you’re into seeing them you won’t have any trouble finding them!

      The other nice thing is that there are far fewer people at the hotel than there are at the theme parks so the line-ups for photos and autographs were relatively short – usually no more than a couple of minutes. This was the case in August anyways – it might be different in the winter.

  3. Beautiful photos of Aulani!

    We agree on the topic of food. While at Ko Olina we head to Kapolei, the town, a couple miles away where there are fantastic ethnic (Thai, Korean, Italian, and Hawaiian restaurants) all easily found near the (Safeway) town shopping center. We also love heading out the opposite direction and shopping at the Waipahu Farmer’s Market (Saturday mornings at the school).

    We’ve stayed for many years now at Marriott’s Vacation Club, the residential (timeshare) condo units on the neighboring lagoon in Ko Olina. The entire development is amazingly beautiful and a real contrast to Waikiki. You do need a car though or you are limited pretty much to the Ko Olina development.

    • Yes there are some good places to eat in Kapolei. I’m working on a post describing my experience getting take-out at Zippy’s. We also had a nice dinner at the Italian restaurant there.

      I’m also working on a post about Tanioka’s in Waipahu which was the other spot that we got take out from and ate in our room (twice). :)

  4. I’m going to show this article to my husband! My kids and I are very interested in checking out the Aulani the next time we go to Hawaii but my husband says that there’s no way he’s going to Hawaii to stay at a Disney hotel! I don’t think we’d want to stay for more than a couple of nights either and we’d definitely eat off-site.

    • I hope he is convinced. On one night we dropped the kids off at Aunty’s Beach House and headed into Honolulu for our anniversary dinner at Alan Wong’s Restaurant. It’s also a great way to spend some beach or pool time together without having to be on drowning alert the whole time.

      The kids club is for kids aged 3-12. Teenagers have a supervised teen lounge that they can hang out in that has some activities and movies as well.

  5. I have been dreaming of staying at this resort since it opened. I just got an email today of them expanding next year. What a great review and beautiful pictures. The reviews I’ve read when it first opened were all from invited mom bloggers so yours was a fresh perspective of a paying customer. My brother moved to Oahu last month but I think we’ll sneak in a stay at Aulani on our next visit.

  6. I know about it only because I read up a lot about travel, but you’re right, most people don’t know about it. I love all things Disney and hope to visit Aulani some day. My kids are kind of too old for it now but would probably still enjoy it.

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